Owner's Role and Responsibilities in the Commissioning Process  

by the WBDG Project Management Committee



Should an independent Commissioning Provider (CxP) be retained, and if so, when? How will the systems be tested, inspected, and documented? How much should be budgeted for commissioning and special testing services? Once a project delivery team has determined critical project goals and requirements, these questions are answered by creating The Commissioning Plan. This page is about incorporating a project's performance requirements into a plan that defines the commissioning scope, process, responsibilities, budget, and documentation requirements.

This WBDG page provides information on common commissioning planning practices and related resources.


Establish Goals for Quality, Efficiency, and Functionality

The commissioning plan should be outlined at the same time that a project team determines project performance requirements. The focus of commissioning efforts should be appropriate to a project's size, complexity, its housed mission, and an owner's risk management strategy. After the project delivery team has determined the essential project performance requirements, goals for project quality, efficiency, and functionality can then be established, and the commissioning plan can be developed.

There are numerous ways to assemble and structure a commissioning team. For optimum project performance a single entity should lead the process from start to finish so that the overall process, principles, and objectives are constant.

The CxP is an objective, independent advocate of the Owner. However, fulfilling the role and functions of the CxP will depend on the needs of each project and is somewhat driven by budget and expertise needed. If the CxP's firm has other project responsibilities, or is not under direct contract to the Owner, a conflict of interest may exist. Wherever this occurs, the CxP discloses, in writing, the nature of the conflict and the means by which the conflict shall be managed. Regardless of where the responsibility for building commissioning lies, it is important that the person or persons maintain a position of impartiality to assure there is no conflict of interest. Common approaches to structuring commissioning roles and responsibilities include:

  • Independent Third Party CxP—An organization that has no other project responsibilities.Typically contracted directly to the Owner.
  • A/E CxP—The USGBC LEED program, ASHRAE guidelines, and other references allow the CxP to be part of the design team for small projects (less than 10,000 and up to 20,000 SF). For larger projects the CxP may be part of the design firm, however he/she must not be a part of the actual design team for the project at hand. The CxP should be contracted directly by the Owner. If an owner chooses to contract the CxP through the A/E team, the contract should clearly identify that the CxP reports directly to the Owner.
  • Construction Manager (CM) as CxP—This approach can be cost-effective and work well when the CM is independent of the contractor's team and has the needed technical experience on board. Many owner groups use "not-at-risk" CMs who act as an owner's agent to manage schedule, cost, and quality. In some cases, the CM may hire the CxP as a subcontractor, resulting in no additional contract management responsibility by the owner. The CxP should be contracted directly by the Owner. If an owner chooses to contract the CxP through the CM, the contract should clearly identify that the CxP reports directly to the Owner.

Since many owners' groups utilize A/Es and "not-at-risk" CMs for quality assurance, commissioning responsibilities and benefits of third party commissioning services must be determined for each project. ASTM E2813-12, Standard Practice for Building Enclosure Commissioning, states "The role and responsibilities of the [BECx Provider/Authority] are not intended to supersede or otherwise replace the contractual obligations reserved specifically for the parties responsible for the design and construction of a building or structure, nor the duties...assigned to those parties by applicable statutory or regulatory law."

Commissioning requires the active participation of the A/E, the construction contractor, a CxP, and the owner. The construction contractor is typically tasked with executing commissioning tests and inspections through subcontractors, while planning, defining commissioning procedures, coordination, witnessing, and verification are tasked to the CxP.

On larger projects, it may be appropriate to employ a CxP under two separate contracts, one for the commissioning plan (pre-design) and design stages and another for the construction phase. The GSA Building Commissioning Guide includes a sample scope of commissioning services suitable for use on public agency projects.

Establish a Commissioning Approach and Scope

The Commissioning approach should include regular meetings on-site and off, program and legal Cx requirements, establishing and maintaining lines of communication with the building owner, design team, and contractor, thorough documentation, enforcement of specification provisions, identifying specialized tests, and creating a timeline for commissioning activities and reports.

The scope addresses the equipment to be commissioned, which can vary depending on programs. Green building rating system compliance and other project requirements define the goals for energy and water consuming equipment; utility incentive programs are equipment specific and must be clearly identified, depending on what has been funded; pharmaceutical facilities must comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); laboratories, data centers, and other critical facilities must have their commissioning requirements clearly addressed in the commissioning scope.

Establish Commissioning Budgets

Commissioning costs can range widely and are dependent upon many factors including a building's size, complexity, and whether the project consists of building renovation, modernization, or new construction and the scope for commissioning services. In general, the cost of commissioning new buildings ranges from 0.5 percent of the total construction cost for relatively simple projects such as office buildings to 1.5 percent for complex laboratories and medical facilities. Additional information on Building Commissioning can be found in PECI, Building Commissioning Costs.

Key factors that can have a direct impact in developing a commissioning budget include:

  • When the commissioning process starts (during design, construction, or post-construction)
  • The number and complexity of systems to be commissioned
  • The level of detail required during the commissioning process (Does it include documenting and witnessing all equipment start-up, verification tests, spot checking the balancing report, etc.?)
  • Deliverables (design intent document, number of design reviews, commissioning plan, O&M manual review, final report, etc.)
  • Type of project (design-bid-build, design-build, plan and spec, retrofit, etc.)

Note: Some utilities now have programs offering incentives/rebates for owners that may offset costs for commissioning, retrocommissioning or re-commissioning facilities.

Establish Commissioning Plans

A written commissioning plan is essential to all commissioned projects and allows all project participants to anticipate and plan for commissioning requirements and milestones. The plan is first developed in the pre-design phase as a design phase commissioning plan and is updated at or near design completion and released as a construction phase commissioning plan. During the pre-design phase, the commissioning plan focuses on assuring the owner's performance requirements are incorporated and properly integrated in the prepared and accepted construction documents. Details of systems tests and procedures, assembly specific checklists, and testing and documentation responsibilities are incorporated in construction phase commissioning plans. Commissioning plans typically include the following sections or contents:

  • General Project Information
  • Overview and Scope of the Project Commissioning
  • Listing of Equipment and Systems to be Commissioned
  • Commissioning Protocols and Communications
  • Commissioning Process, including Team Responsibilities
  • Commissioning Schedule
  • Commissioning Documentation
  • Appendices
    • Testing and Inspection Plans
    • Inspection, Functional and Performance Test Procedures
    • Construction Checklists
    • Performance Testing Procedures and forms
    • Issues Logs

Establish Commissioning Schedules

The CxP works closely with the project team to integrate commissioning activities into the overall planning, design and construction schedule, to keep commissioning activities off the critical path, and to carry out site inspections with a focus on systems performance, operations and maintenance. A commissioning schedule is developed as a section of (or appendix to) a commissioning plan and is updated throughout the project. The objective of scheduling commissioning activities is to integrate and coordinate them with other planning, design and construction phase activities. Detailed integration of commissioning activities and tasks with the overall project schedule is critical to maintaining project milestones. The following chart illustrates how commissioning activities and tasks relate to typically occurring project activities.

Commissioning Process Flowchart

ASHRAE GL-0 2013 Figure B.1—Commissioning Process Flowchart View enlarged

Establish Testing and Inspection Plans

A building cannot be expected to operate optimally if the personnel in charge of operating and maintaining the building systems are unfamiliar with how to service the equipment and do not fully understand how and why the systems operate the way they do. This is especially true with highly complex systems and automated controls. The commissioning plan includes definition of the O&M training requirements, responsibilities, and documentation. Testing appropriate to a facility should be designed along four hierarchal levels: 1) factory device testing; 2) field component start-up; 3) system interface testing; and 4) integrated system testing, which tests the overall facility resilience, under all probable risk scenarios, including failure mode.

Develop Commissioning Specifications

The Construction Specification Institute (CSI) has assigned commissioning to MasterFormat section number 01 91 00. The commissioning specification details the roles and responsibilities of the contractors in the commissioning process throughout the project. A draft set of system readiness checklists (SRCs) and verification test procedures (VTPs) is included in the commissioning specification to communicate to the bidding contractor the level of rigor that can be expected during the testing phase of the commissioning process. Construction contractor responsibilities for commissioning are defined in the commissioning specifications which must be coordinated with other commissioning team members when planning the commissioning process.

Determine Special Testing Needs

As previously noted, the costs of commissioning can be approximately projected based on a percent range of construction costs. Commissioning services normally include elements of program review, planning and managing the commissioning process, and witnessing and documenting commissioning of specified systems and assemblies. When developing commissioning testing and inspection plans, the commissioning team should carefully review means and methods for testing and verification to determine special testing needs outside of normally provided commissioning services. Examples of such special testing include thermographic (infrared) scans of existing or new construction to identify envelope integrity, destructive testing of proposed assemblies to be commissioned (blast, wind, seismic), water penetration tests, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modeling of airflows, building pressurization tests, and the like.

Establish Existing Building Commissioning Plans

In re-commissioning, the first task is to turn the original OPR into a Current Facilities Requirement (CFR) document. During this process, if it is determined that the use for the facility has not significantly changed, the initially commissioned systems are retested to the Commissioning Plan. This process can be part of a predetermined schedule or as part of the Ongoing Commissioning Plan. Commissioning of an existing building that has never undergone commissioning is often referred to as retrocommissioning. Re-commissioning can only be applied to buildings that have been commissioned (or retro-commissioned) and requires a "baseline" performance measurement following the initial commissioning process (i.e., when the systems are fine-tuned and operating as efficiently as possible). Re-commissioning is an essential element in operating buildings optimally and must be incorporated in initial planning and budgeting of the commissioning program.

Emerging Issues

Whole Building Commissioning (WBC) is becoming an important aspect of building commissioning. It entails not just commissioning systems like HVAC, but also includes plumbing, electrical, lighting systems, controls, and building envelope (including daylighting and fenestration) to ensure total building performance. WBC is gaining recognition due to the importance of integrated systems performance as well as the building envelope and its interaction with the HVAC system. This is especially true in high performance buildings where passive ventilation with operable windows is critical to the success of the project. It is also especially true of schools and other buildings housing children because moisture intrusion into walls, ductwork, and HVAC equipment can lead to mold growth and dangerous allergic and asthmatic reactions.

Commissioning Provider Certification

There are numerous commissioning certification programs in the industry. The quality and focus of these certifications vary. An Owner should consider utilizing a CxP that is certified by a DOE recognized certification organization.

Relevant Codes and Standards

Additional Resources